September 15, 2015

Distance Education in the College Network: Current Issues and Practices

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

Table of contents

  1. Our Contributors
  2. Choice of Terminology
  3. Overview
    1. Reducing Student Exodus and Ensuring the Revitalization of Certain Economic Sectors
    2. Accessibility and flexibility
    3. Student Retention and Success
    4. Constraints and New Ways of Operating
    5. Collaboration, Complementarity, and Sharing of Expertise
  4. In Practice
    1. Concerns Expressed by Teachers
    2. Accompaniment and Support of Teachers While Learning the Tools of Distance Education
    3. Pedagogical and Logistical Considerations
    4. Potential Actions to Promote Student Engagement
  5. Useful References

Our Contributors

This featured report is the end result of call for assistance launched on the IT Reps listserv in February of 2015. A survey probing the distance education practices in the college network was organized. Profweb followed up with some of the respondents to discuss the current issues in distance education, its pedagogical challenges, and strategies that are likely to facilitate its deployment in the college network. Eight respondents participated in developing this report. Andréanne Turgeon gathered their comments through telephone interviews and videoconferences.

To learn more about our contributors, mouse over their pictures with your cursor. You will also find information on the mode of distance delivery used by their respective colleges.


Editor’s Note: The following report includes interview responses from Education Advisors across Quebec. The original interviews were conducted in French and have been translated into English. Minor discrepancies between the original response and the translated version are possible.

Choice of Terminology

Several colleges are working to develop a lexicon to distinguish between various distance education models and define related technical vocabulary. Our terminology choices are largely based on the taxonomy (in French) proposed by CETEND, (Centre d’expertise et de transfert en enseignement numérique et à distance), Cégep à distance’s centre for e-learning and distance education expertise and transfer.

Location-based considerations

  • We generally refer to distance education (DE) as a teaching method wherein participants (whether teachers or students) are not in the same physical location as others in the group.
  • We thus bring together the traditional classroom method and the distance (or virtual) method.

Time-based considerations

  • When courses are taught in real time, we refer to this as synchronous delivery.

The term “distance education” equally applies when equipment is used to allow for electronically attending a meeting, such as in a videoconference, or in a room specifically set up for distance education. Distance education can therefore take place in real time.

Distance Education Diagram


In the midst of the work and deliberations on educational programs offered in the college network, a number of stakeholders have identified distance education as a promising avenue for development that will likely address various issues related to certain demographic realities, the economic sectors in different regions, access to education, and student success in postsecondary education.

Maintaining the quality of college education is at the heart of the concerns for teams of various stakeholders within the college setting. They are focused on making the best possible use of distance education and sharing their experience and expertise with others in order to support its deployment.

To support DE initiatives at different CEGEPs, the college network has a wealth of expertise to draw on, starting with Cégep à distance. In addition to this expertise, Education Advisors from the day division and continuing education can contribute, along with teachers who have developed a degree of expertise by experimenting with distance education. Colleges can also rely on a range of services offered by various organizations that have been working on the education technology landscape for a number of years. These services include

  • expertise for developing pedagogical approaches in distance education
  • technological and pedagogical professional development
  • research to plan, document, and evaluate practices
  • learning management systems (LMS)
  • a community of practice
  • a communications platform to disseminate experiences from throughout the network
  • media and tools to support teaching
  • teaching and learning resources (TLRs)
  • technological services
  • a strategic watch to identify promising practices both locally and beyond

This document is the first part of a reflective, collaborative project on the current practices and future perspectives for distance education in Quebec. We wanted to start by examining some of the practices at public and private colleges. Because this is an ongoing project, other stakeholders will be able to enrich the project content. As the reflection continues, other sections on the experiences and expertise being developed in the network could also be added to this report.

Reducing Student Exodus and Ensuring the Revitalization of Certain Economic Sectors

The Ministère de l’Éducation, de l’Enseignement supérieur et de la Recherche (MEESR) has forecasted a decline in college enrollment between 2013 and 2019 for Quebec as a whole. Some administrative regions will be more affected by demographic fluctuations, contributing to the exodus of student populations towards large urban centres. This issue, and the revitalization of certain sectors of the local economy were specifically raised by stakeholders from the college in Eastern Quebec.

At the Cégep de La Pocatière, distance education is a response to certain difficulties, including the exodus of students and the vast territory that the CEGEP serves. In fact, if students have to move to be closer to their educational institution, many prefer to settle in cities like Quebec City or Montreal. Many of them will settle there permanently after they finish their studies rather than returning home to work.

The Cégep de Matane and the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles have the same problem. René Bélanger provided the example of the Centre hospitalier de Sainte-Anne-des-Monts which is having difficulty recruiting nurses. Access to higher education is sometimes difficult as the city is located one hour from Matane, two hours from Rimouski, and five hours from Quebec City. Regardless of the campus students choose, pursuing an education in nursing means travelling a great distance.

René: Distance education is becoming an interesting solution in the context of demographic decline, workforce training needs, and the emigration of students. Technical programs that are offered through distance delivery provide a degree of student retention. Students only have to go to the school occasionally, whether to do their labs or to sit for their exams. To do this, they travel to the campus that is nearest to their home.

The closer the student’s place of learning is to their home environment, the higher the academic success rate tends to be.

At the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles, distance education primarily meets two needs:

  • attaining an overall number of registrations sufficient to start a section (cohort), and
  • keeping programs open that would otherwise be threatened.

Maintaining diversified educational programs also makes it possible to meet the needs of the labour market in terms of a skilled workforce.

Marie-Hélène: In the Magdalen Islands and on the Gaspé Peninsula, many of the businesses are SMEs that do not have the financial resources to hire three people to fulfil the respective roles of accountant, IT technician, and an administrative assistant.

  • These businesses express a recurring need to be able to hire versatile workers.
  • A modular program was developed based on the same principle as an undergraduate degree completed by accumulating certificates. The Diploma of Collegial Studies (DCS/DEC) in Accounting and Management Technology covers the three afore-mentioned disciplines, with each being offered by a different Cegep through a partnership agreement between the CEGEPs in Eastern Quebec.

Martin B.: Some companies are reluctant at times to grant release time to their employees to allow them to study. They have urgent labour needs, but their resources are limited. Distance education meets a number of needs:

  • It is available to workers who have difficulty accessing training near their place of work.
  • It offers better accessibility to technical programs that are exclusive to a limited number of colleges focused on their local economy. Some students might not have registered for these programs if they had to move closer to the college to study. One such example is a program offered exclusively by the École des Pêches et de l’Aquaculture du Québec (ÉPAQ). Students can complete their general education courses on our campus and take their technical courses in a virtual classroom.

Beyond their efforts to ensure students stay within the region, the three institutions rely on attractive programs to mobilize student clienteles from across Quebec and even from outside of Canada.

René: About 25% of the students studying at the Cégep de Matane are Francophone students from other countries. Most of them are from Europe or from Maghreb (the Northwest of Africa). Many of them end up settling permanently in the region after completing their studies. We have local issues in terms of unfulfilled jobs and a lack of skilled labour to fill them. These students help to ensure the continuity within these sectors.

Marie-Hélène: Thanks to an international mobility program between France and Canada, every year 10–15% of our enrollments come from France or Reunion Island. We also have an exclusive program, Adventure Tourism, which attracts students from throughout Quebec—some 90% of students in the program are not from the Gaspé Peninsula! The outdoors adventure-studies option is also very popular with students who love the outdoors. Finally, we established mobility programs that offer financial incentives to enable pre-university students to study in the Gaspé Peninsula for a semester. We have partnerships with six Montreal-area colleges, three of which are English:

Sometimes students decide to complete their studies at the college; others tell their friends about the mobility program and convice them to come along with them to the Gaspé Peninsula.

Promotional video – Adventure Studies:

Accessibility and Flexibility

Distance education can be an interesting option for workers seeking professional development or retraining. A task force on college education offerings found that there is a high proportion of part-time students registered at Cégep à distance, most of them women. We asked our contributors to comment on distance education students and how this kind of education meets student needs in terms of accessibility and flexibility.

A Portrait of Distance Education Students

From the very outset, several respondents stressed that distance education provided a welcome flexibility for students wishing to balance studies, work, and family commitments.

Geneviève: The vast majority of our students are already employed or stay-at-home parents. They particularly appreciate that distance education saves them from having to travel to their classes and being stuck in traffic. All of our courses are offered at night, allowing students to work during the day and, in some cases, enjoy supper with the family. In this context, they find it easy and pleasant to balance their professional and family lives with their studies.

Serge: For students who are already practising, particularly those from the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care (PEC) program, the formula used by the college (synchronous delivery, problem-based or project-based approach) results in an almost immediate application of their studies to their professional practice in the workplace. It’s one facet of distance education that is highly appreciated.

Jacques: Our distance education courses are offered as intensive training (6 hours) or as part of an ACS/AEC. They are primarily intended for a clientele that is already employed. The ITA sometimes receives requests from certain companies, especially in the dairy industry, to provide on-site training to employees and thereby save them some travel to and from the school. When these projects are arranged, it is the employer’s responsibility to provide a suitable training location with the appropriate facilities.

Despite the inherent challenges, this is the avenue that is most likely to interest businesses who must find and retain skilled workers to ensure their survival. It also facilitates a balance between work and study for the employees. Many workplaces in the Lower St. Lawrence and the Gaspé Peninsula–Magdalen Islands regions have opted for this solution. Hospitals in Maria and Chandler have even set up distance education classrooms, and students are freed up by their employer to take classes.

An example of a distance education classroom, Cégep de Matane. Mouse over the image to learn more.

Several contributors mentioned that the synchronous courses were recorded, which offers additional flexibility in comparison to the traditional classroom. Being able to view documents on-line or watch previously recorded sessions does not necessarily mean that remote learners prefer to learn at their own pace. Rather, the contributors believe that these resources represent an added value for students.

Geneviève: The pedagogical model we have chosen is that of the flipped classroom. Consequently, the discipline required is the same for everyone:

  • Attendance, participation, and the time allocated for students to submit assignments are all evaluated the same way, whether the student is in a traditional or a remote setting.
  • Between classes, students are independent. They have a responsibility to properly prepare by reading their course material before the next work session. The sessions are spent applying (and sharing) what was learned from the theoretical aspect of the course that week.
  • The recordings are not intended to encourage students to study by watching the replays of their classes. They should be considered as bonus material.

Serge: The PEC is a pathway program that was created to meet the new graduation requirements for the paramedic ambulance technician. Consequently, it is intended for professionals who are already practising. In fields such as health sciences, practitioners cannot always attend courses because of their variable schedules. Should they miss a class for this reason, they appreciate being able to view the missed session in its entirety.

René: Among other things, the recordings allow students to replay sequences or material that they didn’t understand the first time around. It is a considerable advantage to have access to a recording of the class, even for the in-class students who only occasionally miss a class.

Hélène: Remote learners are expected to attend their classes and participate from their location following the same schedule as the group in the physical classroom to receive the same feedback as the others:

  • Supervision by the teacher
    • Exercises, presentations in real time using the (Ziggi) Webcam
    • Screen sharing (especially in the mobile application development program)
    • Netquiz quizzes, summative or formative evaluations
  • Interactive activities of which a part must absolutely be carried out in a plenary session
    • Problem-based, project-based, or case study approach (the approach chosen by the college)
    • Lectures, debates, seminars
    • Teamwork, since because the VIA virtual classroom service offers the possibility to divide students into sub-groups
  • Guest speakers: Being able to ask them questions

Distance education is not only flexible for students, it may also benefit teachers who are hired to fulfill ad hoc needs for certain areas of expertise.

Jacques: A number of the teachers, guest speakers, and outside presenters in continuing education hired to teach courses at the ITA are freelancers from various parts of Quebec. Because certain educational content is offered exclusively in the winter, the prospect of travelling long distances during a season with unpredictable weather conditions is not very attractive.

The possibility of teaching a course to a classroom of students at the ITA from their home is greatly appreciated by teachers who have had this experience. This formula also represents significant savings for the institution, which does not have to pay the travel costs and accommodations for those teachers that do not live in the area.

René: An urban planning program was recently relaunched in Matane. One of the courses involved political issues and required the hiring of an expert in this field. The number of students and the course load were insufficient to convince a teacher/specialist to travel four hours from Quebec City to offer this one course. Instead, we hired a teacher from Baie-Comeau who connected remotely! Distance education can overcome the lack of teaching expertise in certain fields because distance is no longer a constraint.

Student Retention and Success

In addition to balancing studies with work and family life, distance education offers flexibility (and new ways) to promote student success. Cégep à distance offers some 250 courses that students can take either during the school year or the summer

  • to repeat a course they failed;
  • to complete a prerequisite required to continue their studies;
  • to round out their timetable; or
  • to fast-track their education.

(Chantier sur l’offre de formation collégiale, p.65).

However, courses specific to different programs are primarily offered by the traditional colleges. The courses offered by means of distance education for the technical programs and ACS/AECs vary from one college to another. In some cases, it can even be a lever for academic perseverance.

Jacques: Not all students take the regular courses and complete their education within the standard two or three years. Occasionally, students return to their region after their studies even if they are only one or two courses shy of obtaining their diploma.

  • These students do not see the point of travelling long distances to the ITA for a few hours of classes per week.
  • Living on site is not always possible either: Students incur substantial costs – especially those who are already paying rent in their home region.
  • Ultimately, these constraints may even prevent students in their graduating year from ever getting their degree. Distance education seems to be a pragmatic and flexible solution that supports student success.

Sometimes, individual solutions also eventually benefit a greater number of students:

René: The Centre d’aide en français (French help centre) initially provided assistance to a student residing in Sorel. Options such as screen sharing or using an interactive whiteboard facilitated distance education workshops. Now that the service exists, it can be reused as needed. Since it was set up, a number of students at the CEGEP have taken advantage of the French assistance service remotely.

Distance education also offers a variety of possibilities to adapt teaching according to each student’s needs while also taking the pace of learning into account:

Martin B.: The Moodle platform provides a good framework for various teaching situations: It is a flexible way to help students in difficulty (it is always available and it offers the possibility for the student to review material). It also helps by providing additional tools and resources that enable advanced students to go even further. It allows for differentiated teaching.

There has been a marked increase in college attendance throughout the Quebec college network by students with specific needs (emerging student populations). Distance education, and more broadly, universal learning design, offer new possibilities in terms of adaptation and accessibility for postsecondary education.

Constraints and New Ways of Operating

Distance education poses certain challenges in terms of logistics and requires pedagogical adaptation. There may be some reluctance, too, when distance education is expected to meet a certain need that is neither immediate nor tangible. Several contributors note that the programs whose cohorts have the highest number of students are less likely to turn to distance education.

Marie-Hélène: It is more difficult for teachers whose program is not declining in enrollment to accept concessions in their work schedules or the nature of their tasks. However, I find that there is less reluctance than a few years ago because teachers are aware that new realities have made some changes in teaching methods necessary. Some points are reassuring:

  • They see various examples of success such as the Nursing program, which has tripled its enrollment, requiring eight additional teachers since it began being offered through distance education.
  • Statistics show that remote learners have a slightly higher success rate than students in the teacher’s classroom. This piece of data facilitates the change of opinion that is taking place among teachers. The strength of the numbers eventually has an impact.

Martin B.: A number of technical programs require lab sessions that must take place in person in the lab.

  • These sessions are held on weekends, which involves mobilizing support staff to prepare the laboratory and supervise students with a schedule that is different from the regular CEGEP schedule.
  • Conversely, teachers are encouraged to establish limits for their availability: The fact that the course material is accessible at any time or that the use of email is easy and ubiquitous does not obligate teachers to make themselves available at all times – especially evenings and weekends.

Distance education also poses a certain number of logistical challenges. An increase in the number of participants makes communication and personnel management more complex. Coordinating the various groups and evaluation activities requires careful organization. When teaching multiple sites, the time to send out material must be taken into account. There is no room for last minute changes, especially when it comes to exams. The contributors are unanimous on this point: Distance education leaves little room for improvisation.

René: Distance education courses follow the college calendar and schedule. It can be challenging to coordinate activities with distance students and evaluating them on the same schedule as in-person students.

  • Exams for the remote learners must take place at the same time as the group that is on campus. Cégep à distance provides a valuable resource with its network of close to 50 exam sites. Instructions must be clear because the supervisors at the various sites and the teacher cannot provide additional information during the exam. It’s only fair!
  • Field trips must also be given some thought and adjusted to be equally suitable for distance delivery: I am thinking about mobile devices for virtual tours in particular, which involves ensuring in advance that the places we will visit provide Internet access.

Marie-Hélène: Very remote campuses sometimes experience difficulties that are difficult to foresee before the distance education has started in earnest. Here I am thinking of the unexpected situations that might affect one campus but not another:

  • Snow storms
  • Power outages
  • Losing the connection to the Internet
  • The timezone difference between the Gaspé Peninsula and the Magdalen Islands also affects managing schedules. We had to ensure that the schedules were fair for each campus. This resulted in the course grids having to be redone!

Collaboration, Complementarity, and Sharing of Expertise

Martin B.: Beginning in the fall of 2015, a partnership between the five colleges in Eastern Quebec means it will be possible to offer four technical programs through distance education. The courses offered by each college are complementary, with each college being able to broadcast or receive the training as required.

Marie-Hélène: This collaboration enables us to build on the strengths and exclusive contribution of each of the partner colleges. It ensures a diversification of educational programs in the region and promotes the mobility of workers within that region, which tends to reduce their departure.

René: Distance learning helps maintain a sufficient number of students in several programs that would otherwise be at risk. This type of partnership levels the playing field in terms of potential competition between the institutions because students continue to take those courses that are common to all programs at their home college. It’s one way of enhancing education and making it more accessible in fields that are important for the local economy, and promotes continuity in the workforce.

Another example of collaboration is FADIO (Formation à distance interordres – Interlevel Distance Education) project, which brings together educational institutions from the Lower St. Lawrence and the Gaspé Peninsula–Magdalen Islands regions to develop and share distance education expertise.

FADIO video presentation

In Practice

Concerns Expressed by Teachers

While distance education is a response to several issues and challenges, the transition from the traditional classroom to distance education can be harrowing for many teachers. We asked our contributors to tell us about the main concerns of teachers who get involved in distance education for the first time.

Fear of technical problems ranked first among the persistent fears.

Marie-Hélène: The first thing teachers need is to be reassured and made to feel secure. This must be handled from the very beginning. I’m honest with them: I tell them that, yes, there will probably be hiccups along the way, but that they can always rely on a team of Education Advisors and the technical support staff to assist them. The technical aspects are often regarded as the greatest challenge of distance education, but once this aspect is settled, the real challenge is to adapt educational practices for this form of delivery.

Jacques: The teacher must first become familiar with the VIA virtual classroom tool in order to feel more confident. It is also very important for them to practice using it before they start teaching their course. A support technician is usually on hand at the beginning of the semester to ensure that everything is under control.

  • An effective way to downplay the fear of technical glitches is to assume that a few are bound to crop up! On the other hand, their frequency can be limited by ensuring that the tools are properly configured in advance (using a supported browser, headset with a microphone, a webcam and a wired connection to the Internet rather than Wifi, if possible).
  • The support staff cannot control everything, but they can try to ensure that the teacher’s technological environment is both stable and functional.
  • Students have the same responsibility with respect to the tools they use.
  • The teacher should not be contacted for technical support, but he or she can begin the course by presenting the available support options and referring students to the appropriate service should problems arise. This frees the teacher from the pressure of having to fix everything on their own.

Martin L.: Teachers are afraid they will not know how to react if there is a problem. One solution involves creating guides or scenarios to reassure them. The Collège Campus Notre-Dame-de-Foy also relies on a technical support team.

The Education Advisor must defuse the teacher’s fear of making mistakes. We tell students to that it’s okay to make mistakes during the co-construction of knowledge or in a flipped classroom. Students are more likely to adapt to distance education – to try interacting and experimenting, if their teacher sets the tone.

Hélène: Teachers who use the VIA virtual classroom can contact the company directly for technical support. VIA offers quick, bilingual service at all times!

There is a certain nervousness shared by many teachers when faced with the prospect of having  to learn to use unfamiliar technological tools, which they might perceive as either too numerous or too complex. Teachers can consult with an IT-Rep if they have ideas for activities but do not know how to adapt them for distance delivery.

Martin B.: The first challenge for teachers was a technical one, which included learning how to use Moodle, which is available on three different platforms for La Pocatière, the Montmagny campus, and the continuing education centre, respectively. They also learned how to use VIA. I accompanied them during this process. Informal exchanges between faculty members also enabled the Cégep de La Pocatière to develop new expertise in distance education.

Martin L.: A number of teachers may have a psychological barrier to learning technology that they have to overcome… Teachers are wondering how to translate their practices into a virtual context. While they are in this process I show them that there is a suitable platform or application that exists.

Marie-Hélène: Teachers worry mainly about the functional approach. They don’t know if they will be able to teach their courses the same way they used to.

Sometimes experienced teachers forget how they were able to develop certain learning activities. We need to go back to the basics: What are the objectives that need to be attained? What are the competencies to be developed? With the answers we can then start adapting activites for distance delivery.

Several contributors stressed that learning to overcome the impersonal aspects of distance education presented a challenge for some teachers who can feel intimidated by the screen or nervous about teaching their course in front of a Webcam.

Geneviève: At LaSalle College, distance education is given by tutors. These are people from industry, not professional teachers. They are hired because of their expertise in a field. Their role is essentially:

  • to provide guidance to students in their learning, from the tutorial;
  • to share their expertise and anecdotes from the field; and
  • to present a realistic portrait of their professional environment.

Most tutors tell us they feel nervous before they start because they have to learn to ignore the screen while at the same time managing a class. For this, we provide helpful resources and documents to them that facilitate the task of teaching. They enjoy a good support structure, and have constant assistance from the Education Advisor and the distance education team.

Martin L.: Teachers tell me that they are nervous. I then ask them if they remember how nervous they felt the first time they ever taught in a classroom. I remind them that it probably took them some time to adapt before they felt comfortable. It’s the same thing when you make the transition to the virtual or blended class. The good news is that the adjustment period is generally shorter this time because the teacher already has experience in presenting content, pedagogy, and classroom management.

Martin B.: I have encountered a variety of apprehensions from the teachers:

  • For those teachers in programs that involve counselling, it can be difficult at first for them to ignore the screen since the relational dimension is so key to their profession.
  • Some teachers like the traditional classroom model and its lecture formula. A distance education course, however, requires a different pedagogical approach – one that they do not necessarily feel comfortable with, and does not necessarily correspond to their vision of what teaching should be. This can lead to reluctance.
  • A less-experienced teacher can be afraid of the transition to distance education, which requires reworking how to present content, their interaction with students, and how they evaluate learning. That’s a lot to handle all at once!
  • Conversely, teachers who have mastered the material and have a degree of pedagogical experience may have better intuition when the time comes to adapt and transpose the course into a distance format. A priori, the reluctance is not generation-specific in nature. Rather, it is a combination of factors.

Accompaniment and Support of Teachers While Learning the Tools of Distance Education

All of the collaborators that we interviewed offer accompaniment and support to teachers who generally have very little or no experience with distance education. This accompaniment and support takes on several forms within the colleges.

A table summarizing the various types of accompaniment and support offered to teachers


Martin L.: Distance education is being developed at the Collège Campus Notre-Dame-de-Foy. The project involves the training of teachers to use tools like the VIA virtual classroom service, Moodle, and various free Google applications before they begin their courses.

The initial training is organized in collaboration with Marie-Jeanne Carrière from APOP and René Bélanger at the Cégep de Matane. Teachers are shown interesting examples of pedagogical applications, such as the possibility of working in real-time with others using cloud-based applications like Google Docs.


Jacques: Distance education teachers were able to experiment with the VIA platform before teaching their classes for the first time.

I attended a session where a continuing education teacher was practising their delivery while being shadowed by an Education Advisor. We had fun disrupting the class by turning on our microphones and playing with the settings and tools in VIA in an attempt to destabilize the teacher. He quickly learned how to use the tool and take necessary action to properly manage the class.

Communities of practice

Marie-Hélène: The Education Advisor is often called upon to respond to immediate needs (for the next class) and to recommend a tailored solution.

A teacher amusingly quipped that the Education Advisors role is to “provide a tailored solution… just in time!”  But the more teachers there are, the harder this becomes. The community of practice provides a space to share and exchange while allowing teachers to test things, develop solutions hand-in-hand with Education Advisors and videoconference support technicians.


Martin L.: To support the teacher during their transition to distance education, we drafted a techno-pedagogical guide available in paper or digital format (*in French), a set of resources and procedures to help teachers plan, organize, deliver, and evaluate their distance courses.

We haven’t forgotten the students! Most students have an information session at the beginning of the course, as well as guidance while they are getting acquainted with the learning platform, and for the rest of the course.

René: Remote learners receive a short training session about a week before their classes start. This training includes a welcome from the college, an introduction to the VIA platform, a description of how the course will unfold and an introduction to netiquette by videoconference. In addition to the teacher, who is constantly monitoring the student’s progress, the technical support staff and I contact the remote learners after one or two weeks of classes to see if everything is going well. Students have three levels of support to ensure that the course begins on the right foot and smoothly continues.

Geneviève: An introductory session is offered to students during the first class. This session is recorded for the benefit of students that have registered late. Various kinds of information are provided during the introductory session including:

  • the distance education procedures;
  • the flipped classroom;
  • staff contact information (in case of problems); and
  • how to use the learning platform, etc.

Pedagogical and Logistical Considerations

Martin L.: Technologies are contributing to the paradigm shift that has been taking place in education for a number of years. Teachers who get involved in distance education cannot help but wonder about the quality and impact of their educational approach and if they are making students learn, whether it be in a traditional classroom or through distance education. Studies estimate that the attention span in the context of a traditional lecture is approximately 20 to 30 minutes. In front of a screen, it is only 10 to 15 minutes! This reality forces the teacher to think about a dynamic way of engaging the remote learners.

The traditional class usually involves a transfer of knowledge through downward communication. The teacher holds the knowledge, which they communicate to their students, who receive it passively. In a flipped classroom approach, or during the co-construction of knowledge, the teacher is more of a mediator, coach, and facilitator. The student’s learning process is more active. Distance education is one of the technological options that can enable the pedagogy used in the colleges to evolve.

Jacques: It is essential to adapt your delivery to the virtual environment. Distance teaching is not only about transposing the content of a lecture into a learning management system. We must adapt the pedagogical content and approach to maintain student engagement.

It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that there is an audience on the other side of the screen, but we must never forget that we are speaking to a group. And by all means, please try to use a method other than asking “Are you still there?” to ensure that your audience is still awake. To ask the question is also to answer it! If a teacher feels as though they are talking to themselves, they probably are.

Hélène and Serge: Having a sense of showmanship and developing a style to sustain student interest are part of the recommendations we make. Although our distance education courses are delivered in real time, they require a different pedagogy:

  • A dynamic approach on the part of the teacher better maintains the interest of the students.
  • Generally speaking, this results in more Chat window activity, which is also a good indicator of their level of attention.
  • The teacher can also regularly ask questions and encourage students to use the Chat window, the interactive whiteboard, or the ‘Raise your Hand’ button.
  • The teacher should not hesitate to speak directly to students, and to ask each of them questions. This gives the shy (or reluctant) students a chance to participate as well.

Marie-Hélène: Class management often has to be revamped because the learning environment in distance education is different from that of a traditional classroom.

  • Two students whispering in class may not disturb the teacher, but in a distance education class with microphones, all sounds are amplified. Whispering can thus affect the learning environment of students in the virtual classroom. Teachers must now be attentive to this type of distraction – which didn’t used to be a problem – and intervene.
  • The ability to establish authority at a distance is another concern shared by several teachers. Hence the need to have clear rules of conduct from the outset. The application of these rules can be delegated to the remote group if necessary. As an example, if there is a rule to close the door once a class begins to prevent latecomers from disturbing the rest of the class, a student at the remote site can be responsible for this task.
  • Rules of conduct and netiquette are developed for each program. The Nursing program adopts a code of conduct that is read and approved by students in the classroom and by the off-site learners at the beginning of the first class.

Code of Conduct of the Nursing program, Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles.

Source: LaBillois, D. and St-Germain, M. (2014). Accompagnement des enseignants du collégial dans un contexte d’innovation pédagogique, p. 113.

René: During the Welcome and introduction session, we provide several recommendations to students to ensure that the videoconference courses go smoothly while preventing certain elements from becoming a distraction for the rest of the class.


Distance education may also require some logistical adjustments to better meet the needs of cohorts.

René: In August 2014, the Techniques de tourisme distance education room was completely refurbished after just one year of use. The room’s initial configuration made teamwork difficult, especially between students in the classroom and the distance education students in the VIA virtual classroom.

Distance education classroom of the Techniques de tourisme program, Cégep de Matane. Mouse over the image to learn more about its present layout.

Students can now divide themselves into small teams, interact with their teammates on VIA, and the teacher can go from one room to another to ask questions individually. This is a unique model specifically developed to meet the needs of the program.

Potential Actions to Promote Student Engagement

Martin L.: We sometimes take the existence of a relationship in face-to-face delivery for granted. But a teacher can present the material in class without any real interaction between the student and themselves! If only the teacher does the talking, and the students receive the material passively, there is no way of knowing if they are engaged in their learning or how that learning is evolving.

In distance education, teachers tend to ask themselves about how to ensure that this pedagogical relationship develops. They must use a variety of learning activities, interact with students, make students interact with each other, and use the available tools in the platform. But to what end? To avoid putting students to sleep? To make sure they come back the following week? It goes deeper than that, in my opinion.

Here is some of the advice given by our contributors to help teachers develop a pedagogical relationship with students, to better hold their interest, and to encourage them to become more involved in their learning process.

Martin L.: Students must be aware of their own learning needs. They cannot just sit in front of the screen and expect to pass their exam. Teachers can ask open questions or do surveys to find out more about students’ motivations, fears, and expectations.

To promote student engagement and a human relationship, I invite teachers to introduce themselves in person and to explain their connection to the subject matter. They can also talk about their interests, how they became a teacher and why the chose to specialize in this field. Like students, teachers are human beings who are developing, despite the pedagogical relationship that may initially seem remote or virtual.

Jacques: Among other things, holding the attention of the participants means getting them involved. But we must never lose sight of our timeframe. For an intensive 6-hour training session:

  • I advise against teachers asking students to introduce themselves and to define their interests and their experiences. This is not a cohort that will be together for several weeks. And since time is of the essence, asking each student to quickly state their name and where they are from is sufficient.
  • Instead, I suggest that teachers conduct quick surveys throughout the session to maintain student interest. The surveys don’t even need to be directly related to the material! They can be just for fun. The idea is to keep the students alert and interested.
  • The Chat window is another tool that encourages interactivity!

René: Because we have several distance education classrooms, I recommend that teachers go to the distance education campus 2–3 times during the course. That way, teachers can strengthen their relationship with the students and get to know them without a computer screen. For their part, students from the remote site will feel more integrated and less isolated from the group that sees the teacher on a regular basis. This is an important factor for motivation!

Marie-Hélène: Teachers must tailor their interactions with off-site learners. The students must feel they are part of the group, and the teacher must never forget them behind the screen. Simple gestures like repeating a comment or question that the remote learner has asked to the group within the classroom, or letting them tell a joke that makes all the students in class laugh are all ways of bridging the distance.

Hélène and Serge add that the teachers in their institution notice that there are fewer distance students dropping out as the years go by, but their number is still significant compared to traditional students in the classroom. One factor contributing to drop rates is the sense of isolation felt by some distance education students. Our contributors suggest various strategies to help remote learners overcome this isolation and to develop a sense of belonging.

Hélène and Serge: There are several possible strategies for students to engage more actively in their learning:

  • Ask them to hand in reflective and collaborative assignments that are based on class discussion.
  • Give students full user rights to experiment with the course material on the VIA platform.
  • Create a space for working and sharing together. Interactivity promotes involvement.
  • Integrate active pedagogy into the teaching activities to promote discussion between the virtual class, the teacher and the students attending in person.
  • Implement a delivery method, such as the flipped classroom, that offers greater autonomy to students while also promoting their ongoing attendance for synchronous (real-time) sessions.

Geneviève: Maybe the situation is different at LaSalle College, but over time we have noticed that the use of forums (discussion boards) is not very popular with students. Instead, in several programs, such as video games or event planning, students take the initiative of creating groups on Facebook.

We are witnessing the creation of small communities of practice and networking. If the study platform is a virtual campus, these groups replace the social side of studying, which is just as important.

René: During breaks, I encourage the teacher to put distance students in contact with each other. In a traditional classroom, students often take advantage of breaks to have discussions with their classmates, whether to socialize or to verify their understanding of the course content. For off-campus learners, there is an isolation effect that arises when the teacher announces a break and turns off his or her microphone. By enabling remote students to talk during breaks, there is a strengthening of the sense of inclusion. The rapport they build resembles the rapport between face-to-face students.

Martin L.: There are different ways to break the isolation:

  • Forums can promote discussion.
  • Quickly responding to questions in email, Chat, or during a videoconference strengthens the remote learner’s impression that the teacher is really present, and not an inaccessible entity trapped in a computer screen.
  • The fact that students are working collaboratively in a network helps students to develop a sense of belonging and convinces them that they share a common goal.

In the end, we must give students the freedom to engage … or not! In the end, it is the teacher who makes the transition to distance education that has to trust the distance education process. Technologies offer an opportunity to innovate and evolve on a pedagogical level. Don’t miss out!

Useful References

Research Reports


Groups and Organizations

Digital Resources and Tools


Accounts and Articles on Profweb

Watch For:

APOP professional development (French) activités de perfectionnementand La Cantine

Conseil supérieur de l’éducation. (2015). Enseignement et recherche universitaires: l’essor des nouveaux modes de formation à l’enseignement universitaire. Here is information on the ACFAS conference: Colloque 536 – Formation à distance en enseignement supérieur : l’enjeu de la formation des formateurs. The complete text will be available in June 2015.

About the authors

Andréanne Turgeon

Andréanne Turgeon was an editor with Profweb from 2014 to 2019. Subsequently, she was the organization’s coordinator until it joined Collecto. Since 2021, she has been the director of Collecto’s Digital Pedagogy Services, to which Eductive is affiliated.

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